Like the McDonough and Johnsen essays, the nearly three-dozen portraits and essays tell a different story than one would expect from the Cathedral of Capitalism. There’s Chad Hufsey, another Harvard MBA, who concedes that his fear of failure prevented him from accepting a football scholarship to Harvard College, a decision that has informed his goal to not live a life of regret. “I was afraid that I wasn’t good enough,” wrote Hufsey. “Afraid I couldn’t handle the academics. Afraid to take a chance.” Laila Kassis, a Palestinian female MBA student, recalls how a day spent with her father harvesting olives has led to her desire to encourage entrepreneurship in Egypt. “I want to give aspiring entrepreneurs the skills and courage to try and to fail, to learn from their failures and to emerge stronger, empowered to building lasting endeavors that contribute positively to their communities.”
And there’s Mike Lynch, whose 200-word essay begins with these dramatic words: “I never saw the rocket-propelled grenade that was meant to kill me that morning. I just heard it scream over my head and erupt in a deafening explosion behind me. On Sept. 16, 2006, at a dirty, long-forgotten intersection in Tikrit, Iraq, I was given a second chance…I want to earn my second chance at life by building and leading organizations that fulfill the commitment to serve, support and strengthen this generation of America’s wounded warriors.”
Lorrayne Ward, who will be working for an internal consulting group at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, recalled the time she worked for the Clinton Foundation at a health clinic in Tanzania. She was behind the counter when a woman wanted to buy medicine for her son who was at home with malaria. The woman was sent away because she didn’t have enough money to pay for the drug. ““I was overcome by the chilling realization that I had denied her son lifesaving medicine…,” wrote Ward. “I didn’t foresee the terrible consequences that arise when the profit motive directly clashes with doing what’s right.”
Ward was drawn to the project, she says, because she was inspired by hundreds of other Harvard MBAs who participated through the years. “The vast majority of my classmates do want to live a positive life,” she says. “Instead of reducing it down to who made the most money five years out, a project like this shows that there are many different metrics for success.”
One of the greatest things is for the students and by the students. That provides a really great personal touch. The unveiling is in a couple of hours. You always learn something new about your classmate. They are so personal and touching it makes you think about yourself and your outlook. Some are these grand sweeping visions of change and others focus on the small tradeoffs you confront every day,” says Cara
The project was originally the brainchild of Tony Deifell, a professional photographer and a Class of 2002 MBA, who has since returned each year to photograph the writers of the winning essays. “In the first year, I had to twist some arms to get people to do it,” he recalls. “Harvard students were more likely to know how to write a business plan than an introspective essay that could reveal vulnerabilities or even a grand ambition.”
That has changed, according to Ziv, a former consultant who is going to work in the strategic planning group at American Express. “There is a lot of vulnerability in the essays. And one of the things I learned in authentic leadership development was the power of vulnerability. When you open up and share something that is quite vulnerable about your self, others reciprocate.”
Indeed. That is the real gift of the Portrait Project.